Where rights over natural resources are contested, the effectiveness of conservation may be undermined and it can be difficult to estimate the welfare impacts of conservation restrictions on local people. In particular, researchers face the dilemma of estimating respondents’ Willingness To Pay (WTP) for rights to resources, or their Willingness To Accept (WTA) compensation for foregoing these rights. We conducted a discrete choice experiment with respondents living next to a new protected area in Madagascar, using a split-sample design to administer both WTP and WTA formats, followed by debriefing interviews. We first examined the differences in response patterns to the formats and their performance in our study context. We also used the two formats to elicit respondents’ attitudes to conservation restrictions and property rights over forestlands. We found that the format affected the relative importance of different attributes: WTA respondents strongly favoured livelihood projects and secure tenure whereas neither attributes were significant for WTP respondents. The WTA format outperformed WTP format on three validity criteria: it was perceived to be more plausible and consequential; led to fewer protest responses; and was more appropriate given very low incomes. Seventy-three percent of respondents did not accept the legitimacy of state protection and strongly aspired to secure forest tenure. The use of a WTP format may thus be inappropriate even if respondents do not hold formal rights over resources. We conclude that estimating the opportunity costs of stopping de jure illegal activities is difficult and coercive conservation lacks procedural legitimacy and may not achieve full compensations. Our findings question the viability of the current conservation model and highlight the importance to conservation policy of locally legitimate property rights over forestlands.